That's one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind.

First Man ( 2018 )

★★★1/2   |   Oct. 14, 2018

The Cold War was the driving force behind the space race, a political reality which steered scientific endeavour in 1960s America. It culminated in man setting foot where he had never dreamed of before, and the planting of the American flag on the moon. Ten more astronauts, all Americans, would walk on the Moon in subsequent Apollo missions, the last of which was in 1972. As the Cold War fizzled out, so did that chapter of history, with the economic reality too big a stumbling block in the absence of the pursuit of national pride, and the moon has had no visitors since.

"First Man", the fourth movie directed by Damien Chazelle, focuses on the man who was the first to leave his bootprints on the Moon, Neil Armstrong (Gosling), the commander of the Apollo 11 mission. We first meet Armstrong as a test pilot, dangerously but skilfully flying high enough in his X-15 to see a glimpse of space, and a hint of what is to come. He and his wife Janet (Foy) are struggling to cope with the tragic loss of their daughter, taken by cancer at the tender age of two. He joins NASA's project Gemini, not so much to further the knowledge of mankind, but more in the quest for a new beginning for him and his family. We follow his personal and professional journey as he embarks on a number of tasks and missions as part of the country's ultimate goal to set foot on the moon. In a nation so full of conflict and suffering, the huge investment in the space race draws the public's ire, and he and the other astronauts are frequently called on to convince them of its value.

Armstrong was chosen by NASA to be the first man in some part due to his humility, and Gosling portrays Armstrong in this vein. He's someone who does not blindly seek to be the first to go where no man has gone before, but who nevertheless takes on the responsibility when the call comes. He is a family man, and carries the grief of his daughter's loss with him throughout the movie. He must explain to his wife and children why his mission is worth the risk of them being the latest to lose a father and husband. Space travel is a dangerous business, and Neil and Janet have seen so many young lives taken, and been to far too many funerals to take it lightly. As Armstrong prepares to embark on his mission, a particularly poignant scene concerns the penning of the famous letter prepared in the event that he and Buzz Aldrin didn't return from the Moon. Thankfully it was never needed.

First Man is an absorbing watch chronicling the journey and sacrifices made in the quest to land on the moon. There is a significant challenge in maintaining suspense when telling a story that culminates in one of the most watched and familiar television moments in history. The ending is known, and so the movie becomes about the journey. Gosling's understated performance drives it forward, and he gives us a hero whose humanity and integrity shine in the face of all obstacles. If there is a fault to be levelled at the director, it's that telling of such a remarkable story is a bit too straight, as if it relies on history to provide its own drama. Also, despite some powerful and spectacular scenes, in particular the moon landing itself, it feels like First Man failed to showcase the majesty and wonder of space in a way that recent efforts, such as Interstellar and Gravity, did. Nevertheless, it stands as a worthy testament to a true hero who had the courage to take humanity where it had never been before.

Directed by
Damien Chazelle
Starring
Ryan Gosling
Claire Foy
Corey Stoll
Kyle Chandler
Jason Clarke
Runtime: 138 minutes
First Man (2018) on IMDb